Canada - Health Canada shelves update of graphic warning messages to concentrate on the problem of contraband tobacco..

September 28, 2010 - After more than six years of study, design and focus groups, the federal government has halted its plan to require tobacco companies to update the warnings on the side of cigarette packages with larger and more grotesque images.
Health Canada told provinces and territories attending a closed-door meeting in Newfoundland two weeks ago that its tobacco strategy will instead concentrate on the problem of contraband cigarettes, an issue that has been highlighted by the tobacco industry.

It is unclear why the government cannot pursue tobacco smugglers at the same time it is updating the warning labels.

Background: Canada in 2001 became the first country to introduce pictorial warnings warnings on tobacco packages. We reported in September 2009 that approximately nine years later Health Canada is in the process of revising these health warnings. See news brief: Graphic Warnings cigarette packs: Canada revising warnings, U.S. pictorial warnings within 4-years..

Health Canada shared mock-ups of supersized new warning labels with public-health advocates more than a year ago — with regulations that were expected to be tabled in January 2010 to increase the warning size from their current 50 per cent to at least 70 per cent of the package's surface. Rob Cunningham, a tobacco control specialist at the Canadian Cancer Society, "The government's been working on this for years now and there has been some very unfortunate and inexplicable delays in a new round of cigarette packaging warnings." In a statement to Postmedia News, Health Canada said the department "continues to examine this issue" and "to review public-opinion research on the effectiveness of health-warning messages. "The findings from this research will help Health Canada have messages that will be noticed and effective for all Canadians." (August 12, 2010 - Health Canada - why delay in new round of cigarette pack pictorial warnings??)
The decision to walk away from the complex task of changing and enhancing the nine-year-old messages that are emblazoned on cigarette packages comes after the expense of much time, effort and millions of dollars of public money. The move surprised the provinces, which had been looking forward to the establishment of a toll-free line to help smokers quit. The number of that hotline was to have been incorporated into the new package design.

Officials of provinces contacted by The Globe and Mail on Monday, September 27th expressed disappointment in the federal government’s decision. Health Canada would say only that it “continues to examine the renewal of health warning messages on tobacco packaging but is not ready to move forward at this time.”

The federal department had been examining the benefits of requiring tobacco companies to increase the warnings to cover 90 percent of the packages. It had also been evaluating the impact of new images, including one of a dying Alberta cancer patient, Barb Tarbox, who spent the last months of her life warning Canadians about the consequences of smoking.

Anti-tobacco lobby groups say they believe the government is afraid of taking on the big cigarette companies. “I would expect that the tobacco industry has been lobbying against these warnings just as they have lobbied against improvements to warnings on tobacco packages over the last 20 years,” said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society.

Garfield Mahood, the executive director of the Non-Smokers Rights Association, said he has heard that, when the industry learned about the revisions that Health Canada was planning, “things started to slow right down.”

Eric Gagnon, a spokesman for Imperial Tobacco, said his company believes the existing warning labels are sufficient to convey the health risks associated with smoking. Everyone agrees that the biggest issue related to tobacco is contraband, said Mr. Gagnon. “So I think it would be important for Health Canada to put its efforts on the contraband issue.”

JTI-Macdonald, another big tobacco company, also said the government’s priority right now should be solving the huge problem of illegal tobacco.

New statistics released on Monday by the federal government show that fewer Canadians are giving up smoking. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of smokers over the age of 15 fell from 25 per cent of the population to 19 per cent. That’s a decline of six percentage points. But between 2005 and 2009, that figure dropped by just one percentage point.

Cynthia Callard, the executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, said the tobacco companies have been able to prevent many smoking-related health measures by threatening job losses and legal disputes. The fact that the federal government’s decision was announced to the provincial ministers behind closed doors, said Ms. Callard, “speaks to the fact that it doesn’t make sense and that there is something fishy going on.”

Reference: Federal tobacco strategy turns from scary labels to stopping contraband, Gloria Galloway,
The Globe and Mail, 9/28/2010.

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